There is nothing new under the sun. This two-millennia-old observation by Ecclesiastes is so well known that, even without inverted commas, Johnson is obviously making an allusion, not claiming an original thought.
Among the many non-new things under the sun are accusations against writers that they have, in fact, attempted to pass off others' writings as their own. Two weeks ago accusations of plagiarism were made against Chris Hedges, an American polemicist of the left. Christopher Ketcham details in the New Republic many passages of Mr. Hedges's public writings that bear a stark resemblance to other published work. Mr. Hedges strenuously denies any plagiarism. In some cases, he claims inadvertent failure to source some borrowings. In another instance, Mr. Hedges disputes Mr Ketcham's account of an article by Mr. Hedges that was allegedly spiked by Harper's, a magazine, over concerns that Mr. Hedges had plagiarized another reporter's investigative work.
Many words have already been spilt arguing over which instances are clear-cut, which are borderline, and which are standard practice. Mr. Hedges has detractors who see plagiarism, but also many defenders, including several editors. So Johnson thought he would try another approach to the problem. Plagiarism has tripped up many, from the mighty (politicians, celebrated writers) to countless small fry (students, tyro journalists). Endless warnings of "don't plagiarize" cannot seem to hold back the tide. Perhaps prohibition is useless. Johnson, once a part-time university lecturer, has caught a number of students in plagiarism, and has even discovered a clear-cut plagiarism of the Johnson column itself (which was quickly taken down by the publisher). So, as a bit of an aficionado of the subject, Johnson offers not a stern warning, not ginned-up outrage, but a guide for the beginner. Herewith, How To plagiarize.
Be a good writer in the first place.
Bad writing that suddenly becomes lucid is as noticeable as an inexperienced driver shifting from second into fifth rather than third gear. Student writers are particularly prone to this mistake. So when slipping other professionals' writing into your own, it helps to be a good writer to begin with?the kind, of course, with no need to plagiarize.
plagiarize boring stuff.
Content is key. Original ideas are a yellow flag, striking wordings a red one, and (in the case of journalism) original bits of reporting a completely no-go zone. So be sure to plagiarize others' lazy writing, the kind of rote stuff that won't jump off your own carefully assembled page. In other words, nick the kind of thing not worth plagiarizing.
Prefer unknown writers. Mr. Hedges wrote:
In combat the abstract words glory, honor, courage often become obscene and empty. They are replaced by the tangible images of war, the names of villages, mountains, roads, dates, and battalions.
A mostly identical passage appears in Hemingway's "Farewell to Arms", as a professor at the University of Texas discovered and told Mr. Hedges's publisher. For the paperback edition, Mr. Hedges changed the passage to make it sufficiently different from Hemingway's (though he added no mention of Hemingway, claiming that this would require an expensive repagination of the book). Joe Biden, America's vice-president, once plagiarized a speech by Neil Kinnock, a former leader of Britain's Labour Party, and one of his speechwriters lifted bits from both Robert and John Kennedy, both Democratic Party saints. Obviously, the better-known the source material, the greater risk you run of having to explain yourself. If you must plagiarize, do so from unloved, obscure and at best completely unpublished writers... ie, those not worth plagiarizing.
.' This plagiarist's term of art means to copy another passage almost completely, but changing enough words... add a few here, drop a few there, break up sentence structure, switch some synonyms?that you have plausible deniability. If discovered, you have a sliding scale to defend yourself with: it's not 100%, right? Tomayto, tomahto, let's call the whole trial off. For extra defense, you can mention the original source elsewhere in your piece or in a bibliography, and then claim that your patchwriting was obviously homage, not larceny.
A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf, and each side of a leaf is called a page. Books never contain staples, unlike newspapers, and reading packs. |
One of the richest sources of material is your own back catalogue. If you are in a hurry, writing for too many publications on too many deadlines, go back and reuse material word-for-word that you have published elsewhere. 'Self-plagiarism' is such a confusing phenomenon?leaving pundits wondering whether it is or isn't an oxymoron?that you can almost certainly escape in the confusion.
If you are important or powerful enough, discovered plagiarism will be counted against the many good deeds you have done in your life. It helps if you are not a professional writer, since those good deeds are not themselves writings which will forever live in the shadow of your plagiarism.
Rather than the "be famous" strategy, which few can pull off flawlessly, this really is your best line of defense. No plagiarism is foolproof. Google turns up already published passages in seconds, even dull ones from dull writers. So your best defense is to make sure no one comes looking in the first place. Everyone loves to take down a giant, especially a controversial one. If you must plagiarize, make sure to produce such forgettable work that it will never make you a big name, the kind of titan some people admire, and others long to take down for some serious and unlovable sin.
(When plagiarizing this column, please do not cite 'Johnson: How to plagiarize', The Economist, June 26th, 2014.)